A group of music students who know each other well, who have played together for years, and who all get along: it’s like a dream come true, especially for a new teacher. For Alex Kauffman, his high school jazz ensemble at the Wynnefield Branch fits that description. Comprised of six high-schoolers, most of whom attend Lower Merion High School, they’re friends outside of the ensemble.
“I think that really makes them click,” Kauffman says.
The group has good chemistry, but Kauffman wanted to get the musicians out of their comfort zones. His idea: Free improvisation with the lights in the group’s rehearsal room turned out. With no cues and no communication, he asks, “how do you structure something with nothing planned out?”
As hard as it may sound, the answer was easy: “They had to listen.”
He didn’t turn out the lights for the ensemble’s recital earlier this month, but he did have them try out the same technique, with a resulting – and satisfying – freestyle jam.
Kauffman has been excited at the group’s development over the past year and a half, and he’s now finding that some members of the group are interested in bringing in their own charts and branching out from jazz standards into newer territory. He mentions jazz versions of songs by Radiohead and Stevie Wonder, plus a take on noted jazz trio The Bad Plus’ version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
“It’s so cool the way they have all taken responsibility for the group,” he says.
It’s a long way removed from the music that first got Kauffman interested in jazz. After starting on piano at age 5 and establishing a foundation in classical music, he received a gift from his grandfather in Greece. “He sent me all these albums of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman,” he recalls.
He quickly began seeking out more recordings and more modern sounds. “By age 11, I was falling asleep listening to Charlie Parker every night,” he says.
Now, having studied music at Temple University and embarked on a teaching career, he has the opportunity to introduce his students – both from his ensemble and his individual students – to the musical greats in both jazz and classical music.
“I didn’t think I wanted to teach, but it was a route I wanted to try,” he says. “I realize now it was something that was missing in my life. It’s been very fulfilling and something I want to make a career out of.”